Xela and it’s environs are a magical area. Magical might be a bit of a stretch but it’s definitely entrenched in natural volcanic, geothermal activity creating some amazing local wonders. There are the bath-houses of “Los Baños” – more of a locals utilitarian centre, there are the pools of “Fuentes Georginas” – a “must-see” hit with visitors and there are “Los Vahos” (the Vapours) – a natural sauna. All of the afore-mentioned are courtesy of geothermal energy from Volcan Cerro Quemado.
The walk up to Los Vahos is part of the experience. It’s an uphill ramble of up to an hour depending on your pace. The route takes you through fields of flowers and vegetables and the views are fantastic. As you get close to the steamy source you will pass through a brief but beautiful stretch which is demarcated with towering eucalyptus trees standing sentinel on both sides of the dirt road.
Often people bring small sprigs gleaned from the eucalyptus trees with them, to place on the steam vents for a sinus clearing boost. There are individual small chambers built around each vent with just enough room for the plastic stool or two contained within. This may not be the most inviting scenario for many people but for us this is another part of our travels that is engrained in our memories and something we look forward to. We first visited Los Vahos back in 2009 and it will always be one of our most memorable experiences.
The first challenge is to find a member of the lucky family upon whose property the vents lie. The rate in 2013 was 20Q ($2.50) for an hour. Once inside your chosen concrete chamber, pull up a plastic stool, close your eyes, sink back and sweat. The heat and steam are incredibly intense, it is impossible to stay inside for more than a couple of minutes.
Thus begins the ritual of “the Natural Vapours”. You can either step outside and cool down in the refreshing mountain air or you can take an invigorating, brisk shower from the pipe sticking out of the wall. This is where our only gripe lies; the frigid piped water seems to “evaporate” after just a few short blasts. After an hour of traditional Nordic sauna therapy, drifting from oppressive steam to the jolt of cold, repeatedly, leaves one as relaxed as a boneless chicken.
Since 2009 things have changed a wee bit. Granted, we found out about Los Vahos from our “Rough Guide” and “Lonely Planet” books, so we were by no means some intrepid discoverer’s of the place. However, entry fees have increased and now it seems it has been incorporated into some of the local organised tour groups itineraries. Even so this has by no means taken away from the overall uniqueness and beauty of the location. It is still common to have the entire place to yourself.